The Ugly Side of the First Lady Syndrome in Africa

“Macbeth: If we should fail —
Lady Macbeth: We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.”
– Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, Scene VII

Political Science 101: power is the capacity to make others do what they would not ordinarily do. Often described as the power behind the throne, First Ladies are well positioned to either build or destroy a nation by virtue of the power they wield over their spouses. In my earlier piece on Last..err..First Ladies in Africa, I focussed mainly on their instrumental role as peace-makers and advocates of change. A role which many of our First Ladies have not taken up and as a result, they are also blamed for the failures and short-comings of their husband’s rule.

Exhibit A:

This picture of Simone Gbagbo raised a number of disturbing issues for me:
1. When is enough enough? Is this any way to treat a woman? As Africans, arent we taught to respect our mothers?
2. Why am I even asking Question 1 while there are women being raped and abused every minute in DRC and South Africa?
3. Would this kind of punishment ever be metted out in the Western world to it’s overthrown rulers? Are we Africans just barbaric?
4. In light of the aforementioned, will Gbagbo share a similar fate to Samuel Doe?
5. Gbagbo aside, who will try Alassane Ouattara for the war crimes and crimes against humanity he has committed in order to take control of Cote d’Ivoire?

Alas, I have digressed.

History tells us that our African rulers never seem to learn from lessons like the recent events in Cote d’Ivoire or from other examples fresh in our minds like Egypt and Tunisia. The populace are beginning to realise that our rulers have no intention of serving them or respecting the law and as far they are concerned their goal is to do whatever it takes to die clinging on to power. And so, as the saying goes: If you rule by the barrel of the gun, then there’s a bullet waiting with your name on it. Sadly this is the fate that awaits the remaining Laurent Gbagbos of Africa: Paul Biya, Yoweri Museveni, Robert Mugabe, King Mswati III and others like [insert your president’s name here]

The question I have is this: Are Chantal Biya, Grace Mugabe, Janet Museveni and others willing to go through the form of total humiliation that Simone Gbagbo is going though before they talk some sense into their megalo-maniac husbands? Aren’t they supposed to be helping their husbands gauge the public mood and feeling thereby putting them in a good position to advise their hubbies on how best to serve their people? Or are these First Ladies just as power-hungry, self-serving and indifferent as I once made them out to be?

Even as I ask these questions, the silence of two particular First Ladies recently gives me all the answers I need.

Take Grace Mugabe for instance, two days ago it is reported that she and her husband are literally using the national airline carrier Air Zimbabwe as their personal taxi and have made over four trips to Singapore in the last three months. The most recent of these trips was this week after Grace reportedly slipped and fell in the bathroom of their posh Borrowdale home. How in the name of Anyang’ Nyongo’s prostate do you burden your improverished tax payers with your personal bills while they’re busy grappling with sky-rocketting inflation, a value-less currency and are drying of common curable diseases? Grace Mugabe or “Gucci Grace”, as she is affectionately called, is also known to be a notorious shopper and a big spender. I guess she thinks that the Gbagbo’s fate would never befall her and her husband as she continues to encourage her husband to hold on to power at all costs.

Yes Janet Museveni, I’m looking at you. If this deplorable and shameful treatment of a fellow human-being did not feature in your nightly pillow-talks with Kaguta then you’re doing your people a great dis-service as a “First Lady”.
If you are not able to talk some sense into your husband, who will?

As the wave of revolution and uprising sweeps across Africa, it is my hope that leaders, young and old, men and women will begin to emerge and say enough is enough. As for our dear First Ladies, that title you carry around means nothing if you sit back and watch your country plunge into ruin and disarray. We implore you to stand up to our leaders and speak for us, especially your husbands.

19 thoughts on “The Ugly Side of the First Lady Syndrome in Africa

  1. Spot on!
    People may claim they’re innocent because they’re just married to the guys and don’t make the laws but as long as you’re enjoying the fruits of his misrule, then you definitely should be held accountable.

    To see how Michelle Obama has become such a symbol for American women, and then I look at our own First Lady who’s biggest concern is that she is given her rightful title as the only wife, I just SMH.

    I always wonder if the “for better or worse” in the marriage vows covers this.

    • I SMH too, Binti. And I share in your frustration. It says alot about these women who reinforce antiquated gender stereotypes by allowing their husbands to do as they wish and only intervening to protect their petty interests. Michelle Obama is the modern First Lady that has the same Ivy-League education as her husband and has pretty much seen the ins and outs of politics by virtue of being by her husband’s side. She is thus confident and able to take charge of all national affairs. Hopefully, Africa will get its own progressive, forward-looking First Ladies soon enough.

  2. Michelle Obama would be ashamed to have any relationship [even if it spans many, many generations back] with these so called ‘first ladies’….

    BTW, mugabe has US$ to spend on these junkets since the Zim$ is no longer used…

    • I’m glad you mentioned Michelle Obama. It almost slipped my mind that there are First Ladies out there that actually have the brains and goodwill to play an active role in the affairs of their countries.

    • I would. You would too. It’s Zim’s version of Sandton, Camps Bay, Nakasero, Les Almadies….or Muthaiga, if you will.

  3. Our country is going down…………. very fast, especially now that petrol prices are set to go up with about 8/- Am hoping Roocy will speak to Kibaki, or Ida to Raila to look into this issue! But most of all, I pity Roocy, reason being that if any past actions by GoK operatives were done on her order, she will pay a great deal. Moi’s bill of 2B is a flood-gate opening case.

    • That was definitely a landmark case. My only hope is that the excesses of Kenyatta’s regime are also looked into. We are seriously in need of land reform in this country. As for Kibaki, I dont see him putting up a fight in 2012. He may however decide to use his incumbency to push for his preferred successor but Kenyans will resist this through the power of the ballot. As for Lucy, she best be preparing to leave State House come August 2012. If the way we treated Moi is anything to go by, if the Kibaki’s exit quietly, they’ll be no Gbagbo drama.

  4. Funny enough I was thinking about this yesterday but on a somewhat different angle from the writer. I was looking at a picture of Simone, it’s the one where she seating in a hotel bed, looking like a mess and then i compared it to her picture at the swearing in of her husband and i thought wow how situations can change!!

  5. Great post. Hadnt seen that pic of the former Ivorian first lady before. Humiliating indeed. To answer your Question 3 – yes, such punishment, actually even worse has been metted out in the Western World, only it seems like eons ago that they’d probably look down upon Africans as being backward forgetting they went through it themselves if only they opened up a history book. Marie Antoinette, who infamously told the starving French population to go eat cake if they cant afford bread. And more recently, Elena Ceauşescu, former Romanian first lady who along with her husband were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. The West, you see, has gone through this drama themselves too.

  6. That picture breaks my heart. What is wrong with us as a human race and this tendency to do such atrocious things to the only gender responsible for delivering us? And then Uganda, do these people realize we live in a world with camera phones, tv and internet!!! Ego and greed fuel many of the issues on this planet. Power comes at a price and much shunned responsibility as constantly portrayed by our leaders. People think they are too far removed and protected from the evils that plague the very society they rule-how the mighty fall. Eh those who dont learn from history are bound to repeat it. We can only hope things change but also do our share to become part of the change-vote, educate, empower. We have to start somewhere.

  7. What if (and this is just a hypothetical question) some of the first ladies are actually terrified of their husbands? If these dictators have no qualms about doing what they do to their citizens in the all seeing view of the world’s lens, who’s to say what they’re willing to do in the privacy of their own homes?

    Some of these women may be “enjoying the trappings of power” on pain of death.

    This may be no excuse, but it is a mitigating factor.

    • Good point, Ken. As much as those “weak” First Ladies exist, I would argue that they must be made aware of their public duty by virtue of the place in society they occupy. They need to put the shopping bags down and take an active interest in the affairs of the country. Hell, I wouldnt mind if they used their influence to raise public awareness on the usual First Lady issues eg. HIV/AIDS. It’s all well and good just as long as they are not just sitting around doing nothing.

  8. I don’t quite agree with you.

    While I certainly do not appreciate Grace Mugabe’s extravagance or Roocy’s craziness, I don’t think First Lady’s should be held accountable for the governance of a country.

    If she, like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton before her, wants to become involved in government – more power to her!

    However, we must remember that the job of a First Lady is to be a wife to her husband. Period.

    So there’s my two cents.

    • Joyce, I agree with you that the First Lady’s first priority is her marriage, which in itself is a handful seeing as the Commander in Chief is out protecting the country but there’s something to be said for acknowledging your new role in society as First Lady, your position of power and using that to give something back to your country.

  9. You started the post very well but your tone changes to blame on the “First Ladies” whatever was done to Simone is not justifiable either. In the African context, the First ladies have very minimal roles to play because the presidents are more loyal to their inner circle rather than their wifes. wifes are there to enjoy luxuries!

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